Hope Past the Page: A Conversation with Matthew Clark Davison

By

Matthew Clark Davison’s debut novel, Doubting Thomas, published earlier this month by Amble Press, launches with Thomas McGurrin, an openly gay fourth-grade teacher at Portland’s Country Day school, accused of molesting a male student. Though untrue, the accusation throws Thomas off, just as he’s forced to reckon with his younger brother’s cancer diagnosis. Ann Packer writes: “Is it possible to emerge from such a moment with hope and an open heart?”

Five years ago, Matthew welcomed me into a church off Lyon Street in San Francisco for The Lab, his community-based writing class. He turned off the lights and we watched Juan teach Little how to swim in the Atlantic ocean in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. Eight of us wrote, noted questions, and read our work aloud. Matthew’s questions helped me transform a sprawling rant into a layered story. I appreciated his curiosity and compassion, and we’ve kept in touch since.

Matthew Clark Davison’s textbook version of The Lab, co-authored by bestselling writer Alice LaPlante, will be published by Norton in 2022. His prose has been published in Guernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Foglifter, Fourteen Hills, Per Contra, Educe, and others, and has been recognized with a Creative Work Grant, Cultural Equities Grant, and a Stonewall Alumni Award. Matthew earned a MFA in Creative Writing from SFSU, where he now teaches full-time.

We recently discussed the queer teacher and queer body as suspect, vulnerability and characterization, queer hopeful endings, and his novel as part of a literary tradition of protest.

***

The Rumpus: Your opening is striking. It calls to mind Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, and ensuing decades of discrimination against LGBTQ+ teachers. What was Doubting Thomas’s initial kernel?

Matthew Clark Davison: Anita Bryant. The Satanic Scare. Other strategically targeted anti-LGBTQ+ hate campaigns (the likes of which continue) that were on the news, as I grew up a little femme boi trying to convince my brother Jon to play Wonder Woman with me (an uphill battle) on the blocks where we grew up. In my Sunday School class I was given a pamphlet warning me about the dangers of homosexuality. On it, someone had drawn a guy in tight jeans standing outside a playground, lurking. The artist had exaggerated the figure’s eyelashes and crotch bulge as he peered at young boys through a gripped fence.

In 2011, I witnessed a conversation between a concerned adult who’d visited a fourth-grade class and an administrator. The visitor said he felt funny because he witnessed the teacher touch a boy inappropriately. Turned out, the teacher had touched the child’s shoulders. Overhearing this exchange, I remember, viscerally, terror running through my body: first for the kid, then for the teacher and his future employment, and finally for all of the kids who are being abused and not believed. The visitor, a liberal and kind person in many ways, couldn’t reconcile “flamboyant teacher” and “boy” in the same space. That was the kernel.

Rumpus: I hear that—fear for the kid, the teacher, the many kids who are abused and never see justice. Were you aiming to create a dialogue between abuse, scapegoating, and systemic homophobia?

Davison: At first, I didn’t aim to do anything except tell the story based on the event I described with the classroom visitor, dig deep into the emotions of it. I am interested in characters’ psyches when they’re erroneously assumed guilty of something awful. Later, rereading the drafts, I thought a lot about the survivors whose perpetrators never faced consequences. Scapegoats and pariahs, of course, provide distraction and cover for those doing harm, but I was less interested in exposing and more interested in inhabiting.

Rumpus: Speak to me about the suspicious, “perverted,” “dangerous” queer body.

Davison: Of course there are a lot of queer folks who do bad things, but research shows that gay men are no more likely to be pedophiles. Again: this perversion exists in the minds of people who don’t identify as queer, and my job as a writer was to push on and highlight what lurks beneath surface-level respect. Thomas cooperates with the investigation. These guys are, in some ways, like Thomas’s own brothers.

Rumpus: Do you see Doubting Thomas in conversation with protest novels?

Davison: Janice Mirikitani and June Jordan co-taught the first creative writing class I ever took in the basement of Glide Church, so poetry and protest (and the poetry of protest) are part of my foundation. I participated in countless street protests with Glide, ActUp, and Queer Nation. Cecil Williams, a civil rights leader who preached at Glide Church, quoted Angela Davis to me. He said, “Matthew, if they’re going to get me in the morning they’re going to get you at night.”

In real life, we were often fighting against clearcut wrongdoings. In the novel, I was less interested in wrong or right, guilt or innocence. My favorite novels invite readers to see themselves in each character, no matter how destructive or righteous.

I think my characters know, on some level, it’s the system that’s broken, even as they take jabs at each other.

Rumpus: It tickles me that Thomas meets Jerome on a sex site for one date, and Jerome later becomes his lawyer. Your writing doesn’t cater to respectability politics, in terms of sexuality and bits of dark humor—”40-something/yo SWM Jobless but Proven Not Guilty of Child Molestation Seeks Love.” Tell me more.

Davison: Thomas tries to maintain his spirit with that line. He also says, “What to wear to dinner with Dad after being accused of sexually molesting a nine-year-old?” To balance that anger, I felt the book also needed earned moments of reprieve, whether tenderness or dark humor.

The brilliant writer Michael Nava, who was my editor, and managing editor at Amble Press, said: “I love it, but I still think it could be even angrier. Even queerer.” I hadn’t known until I heard him make that comment that it was the criticism I’d been waiting to hear my entire life.

Had Thomas been more of an asexaul person, it may have been easier for the reader to see him as a victim. I didn’t want that. Michael encouraged me to expand and detail the sex scenes so the readers could contend with both his innocence and his sexuality. He’s an adult who seeks out and has sex with adults. The fact that those adults are men somehow makes it easier—even for the gay parents at Country Day—to believe that he’s guilty.

Rumpus: Thomas’s teacher diary of mission statements show his idealism and the compromises he’s made while trying to survive. What price does he pay?

Davison: Thomas’s teaching mission statements made their way in during a fairly late draft. I’d been asking students in a graduate class I teach (about teaching creative writing) at SFSU to make mission statements and I wanted to give Thomas one. I’d written my own fair share of them, but I’m not as organized as Thomas, so I can’t see how I’ve tightened or loosened my own values over time. It’s this tightening and loosening of ideals that reveals character—how he’s changed over time—that is relevant for fiction.

It’s interesting that you say, “compromises he’s made while trying to survive.” I don’t think it’s just about survival for him; I also think it’s about something more sinister, something darker.

Thomas attempts to escape loneliness with what he sees as his righteous work. What if teaching was just a job? What if we were all paid a fair wage? What would we have time for if we weren’t so ambitious?

I wonder about the value we place on work-related identity markers and how they compare to other markers, like: sister, brother, daughter, son, uncle, lover, and friend. I know these things overlap and there are folks in real life who have material success, family, and perspective. But novels aren’t usually about those people.

Rumpus: Thomas is really vulnerable when he witnesses Chad’s assault. Can you say more about this scene?

Davison: At a certain point in the development, Doubting Thomas needed a scene that showed the birth of Thomas’s unshakable fear—a pivotal moment that caused him to turn inward, to hide parts of his essential self—but I didn’t want to evoke the feeling of pity in the reader, at least not for Thomas. He has too many advantages.

My real-life story is much more like Chad’s than Thomas’s. I wanted the reader to experience Chad’s horror, but I wanted it filtered through someone who witnessed it but didn’t take action. I wanted to set up this inaction in such a way that it would haunt Thomas forever. My question remains: can a reader have compassion for someone who fails to protect the vulnerable? Also: his inaction serves—as I see it—an important counter-balance to his feelings of victimhood for not being protected. It’s easy to point the finger at someone else’s bad behavior, harder (and therefore more interesting for fiction) to examine one’s own.

The scenes that most influenced mine, craft-wise, are from Morrison’s Sula, when Sula watches her mother, Hannah, burn, and the scene when Chicken Little drowns. In both cases, Morrison portrays the opposite of what might be expected (or the opposite of what I expected). She uses gorgeous language to portray something awful. She portrayed inactiveness kinetically by burrowing deep into the mind.

Justin Torres did something similar (though rendered differently) in We the Animals, in the scene where the narrator is in the lake with his dad. He, too, found the beauty in its opposite. I’m interested in more complex and less discussed sets of reactions—like curiosity, or resignation or smugness or relief—in the face of horrible tragedy. To me, that feels more real. Shock distorts and delays what’s logical. In my own experience, grief and sadness are often delayed, so Morrison’s and Torres’s scenes felt capital-T True.

Even though there’s a detached quality to the scenes I mention, as the reader I feel so much emotion—so much vulnerability, as you say—for Sula (and for Nel with Chicken Little) and for Torres’s narrator based on how Morrison and Torres portrayed those moments. I hope my readers will feel the same for my characters.

Rumpus: What inspired the character Mercy, Thomas’s boss and friend?

Davison: Like all the characters, Mercy is a composite of a few people I’ve known or met or talked to. And, at a certain point, each character is less based on any one person, but continues to develop in my imagination, influenced by everything I hear and read and listen to. The brothers, mother, father, nieces, nephew and step-mom are this way, too—based at first a bit on people in my family, but they change and change from how I perceive the real people. In that process they stop resembling the real-life people all together.

Mercy and Thomas had a real relationship. Real love. I attempted to portray that in how closely the two know each other. Thomas adores Mercy’s gestures, her nerdy glamour, her excellence. They are each other’s ride from the airport! They’re each other’s home-key holders and vacation plant-waterers! They go bird-watching and hiking on the regular! The system broke them. In a way, I see Mercy as another sibling to Thomas, and a central question in the novel is how social ills affect families in ways we’ve seen portrayed less often in fiction: when each family member loves the other.

Rumpus: Thomas’s brother, James, asks him if he touched the boy. Can you say more about Thomas’s reaction and their dynamic?

Davison: The moment on the treadmill, from James’s point of view, is one of generosity, of caring. From Thomas’s point of view, it was deeply offensive that James even imagined the possibility. When James asks Thomas the big question, I see it almost like someone checking the knob on a door they just locked, just to make sure it’s, in fact, locked, knowing that they just locked it. But Thomas didn’t see it the way I do, and he unleashed anger he didn’t even know he had. I think this happens a lot: loved ones are punished for others’ sins.

Thomas thought by being a certain kind of gay brother (one that doesn’t ruffle too many feathers), he’d earned their unwavering support. Even James, who adores Thomas, is influenced by the wider cultural imagination. I wonder what percentage of Thomas’s outrage at James’s question is about James’s actual question (which is consistent with other ways in which James blunders throughout the book) or Thomas’s own decision to mold himself into someone he imagined James would think acceptable.

Rumpus: He’s internalized this idea of what’s acceptable, too: “Thomas’s idea of freedom had become so warped by the small world he inhabited, that of Portland, of Country Day.”

Davison: John Cameron Mitchell described his project Anthem: Homunculus as an “alternative autobiography,” a fictional version of what could’ve happened. I tried to imagine what my life would’ve been like had I been able to succeed at fitting in, in doing well in school, in controlling my urges and desires.

To get there, I imagined Thomas having to grapple with all that he lost. I spent two decades in the Castro and South of Market in the gay bars—and a decade in the AIDS wards and at memorials. He missed a ton of depth, a lot of heartache, and so much fun.

Rumpus: What were some of the books you read while writing Doubting Thomas?

Davison: All of these stories, novels, or nonfiction titles inspired me or influenced my thinking or helped me solve some problem in some way during the years I wrote. Some craft-wise, some subject-wise or thematically, some on the tone or musicality of the language. I apologize in advance to those I leave off: We the Animals, Justin Torres; Sula, Toni Morrison; “White Angel,” Michael Cunningham; Lawnboy, Paul Lisicky; Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Lydia Peelle; “The Other Place,” Mary Gaitskill; Giovianni’s Room, James Baldwin; My Father, the Pornographer, Chris Offutt; Between the World and Me (and other articles in the Atlantic), Ta-Nehisi Coates; What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell; A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara; Bettyville, George Hodgman; Truth & Beauty, Ann Patchett; (read back to back with) Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy; so many others.

And I went through a phase where I was listening to—on repeat—two songs I didn’t appreciate at the time they came out: “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac is one. Readers can discover the second in the book.

Rumpus: I found the ending hopeful. Tell me about your take on queer happy endings, and the future you envision past the page.

Davison: My first happy ending! It was so unfamiliar to me. I was talked into cutting it at one point, ending sooner. That said, I don’t think Thomas and his family are going to sail off into the sunset, unless it’s for a repeat whale watching trip, which can be as tedious and uncomfortable as joyful or happy. I’m sure readers will easily be able to imagine future hardships for this crew. Tragic losses, depression, addiction, trauma. All of these realities of life have their way of returning, again and again. It’s our thinking about them that has a chance of changing. I didn’t set out to write a happy ending because of a political stance. I followed the story where it took me.

Every fictional scene, no matter how dire or hopeful, can be portrayed superficially or compellingly, and my goal is to portray my characters in scenes that cause them (and then me) to grapple, to dig beneath the surface. To stay true to myself with this project, I felt compelled to portray the humor and joy that punctuates the days and hours of a really bad year and the joys and challenges of folks who care for each other even when they’re hurting each other.

Perhaps, in a way, depicting joy and humor in Doubting Thomas lines up with my lived experiences. My first gay pride celebration was somewhere between 1987-89. AIDS was full-tilt ripping its way through my inner-circle. It was probably the scariest time of my life. I was a dropout with a waiter job and no education. I’d escaped so many oppressive environments to get to San Francisco, hoping it would be a mecca. In some ways, it was. In others, it was a new nightmare. Every single day I faced terror, showing up for these young talented friends who were so ill, all the while worried I’d be next.

And? Also? Simultaneously? Concurrently? The party was on! We had so much fun! And not just at the glorious pre-corporate Pride parade. Monday night at The Stud, Tuesday at The Detour, Wednesday back to The Stud, Thursdays at The Box, Fag Fridays at The Endup, Saturdays at Collosus or Product, Sundays at Uranis. Cafe San Marcos (now The Cafe) for a kiki, or Cafe Flore for a coffee or The Pendulum for some pinball before grabbing a burrito. My groups of friends had a blast. Freedom is important. If a writer wants to move beyond trauma and into joy, I say, do it. But it’s not, as I see it, an order. It depends on you, your story.

***

Photograph of Matthew Clark Davison by Robyn Navarro.


Celeste Chan is a writer schooled by Do-It-Yourself culture and immigrant parents from Malaysia and the Bronx, NY. Co-founder of Queer Rebels and Sister Spit tour alumna, she serves on the board of Foglifter Journal. She’s published in AWAY, cream city review, The Rumpus, and other literary journals. She's currently writing a memoir. More from this author →